School Design: Renovate or Replace?

Emirates International School

The decision to renovate a building or tear it down to make way for a more modern one is one that requires careful consideration. Partner Jason Burnside addresses this issue in education design and debates when to demolish and when to preserve a school.

The initial appraisal will consider the client’s expectations and how much area they are looking to create. From this we look at the density of the building and if it could be converted and therefore achieve what they want – perhaps with some degree of remodelling but not to the point where it becomes cost prohibitive.
Obviously comparative construction costs and schedules are critical components of the decision-making process but the less tangible reasons such as sustainability, technological advances and flexible learning environment should also be considered. Questions such as the future needs of the school and evolving teaching methods are already starting to influence the design of education today and the traditional closed-style classrooms are being replaced by more open, collaborative spaces.

The decision whether to renovate or to raze is not just about squeezing in classrooms it is about maximising the potential of the site. Given that many of the campuses in the UAE were built over 20 or 30 years ago the original masterplan for them may never have been realised. Or it may have gone beyond the scope of the original masterplan.

When we first started work on the Emirates International School it was clear to both the client and us that the potential of removing the existing nine classrooms far exceeded the value of keeping them because this was a plot that could accommodate close to fifty classrooms as well as specialist areas such as an auditorium, sports hall or science labs for example within the equivalent amount of space.

The approach here, therefore, was to improve the density and efficiency of the early year’s facility whilst freeing up valuable external play space. The maximum capacity for that site was a ground + 3 structure but by demolishing it we were still able to achieve a huge amount of additional space by building vertically.

When deciding whether to raze or renovate you essentially have three options. In the first instance the cosmetic refurbishment is a good opportunity to readdress those areas that are less disruptive to the operation such as the lighting, the flooring or the furniture. With this option you are able to maintain operations as normal with some degree of interruption but no need to vacate the space.

The next level of extensive refurbishment involves a more significant alteration. With this type of work there is generally a need to relocate to a different area to allow for larger scale work such as knocking down walls. An extensive refurbishment usually requires structural alterations to repurpose a space or spaces.

With a complete redesign there is no compromise and what the client is getting is a fit for purpose space. This requires tearing down an existing building to make way for a new build which would be designed around the specifics of what is required. The main consideration here is the time required to undertake the work. In a school you would need to allow for around a year depending on the scope of work. There is no compromise but there is a significant investment.

Our work with Dubai College to date has been in the extensive refurbishment category. We have just completed the D Block there. Throughout the work the plan was to keep the existing building but completely remodel it stripping it back to its shell with insulation being incorporated into the walls and the roof to improve the thermal rating of the building. The new energy-efficient building now features a 140-seat lecture hall and nine classrooms with a teacher training space as well as informal study pods with writing walls and desks where students can choose to work together or study independently.

Our work on the college has always been carefully considered in terms of how we go from one plot to the next without impacting too much on the day to day activities of the campus and its students. Equally important is the sustainability of the campus. When designing the new buildings it’s not just about the physical teaching spaces but also about how the school will cater to future demands as it grows and develops.

Sometimes adapting an existing space is just not feasible and then you have to look at the option to demolish. Which is what we have done with next phase of the Dubai College project, the sports complex.

When we initially went through the process of analysing the existing sports complex structure and working out how it could be expanded it became clear that we could only extend in one direction and that was into the car park. So when we looked at whether we could adapt the structure to make the double span it meant we would have had to demolish the sports hall anyway just to restructure it. In this case it was actually less costly to completely demolish the whole building and start again. And that threw up many different opportunities. The pool was originally in a secluded area at the back of the campus but as the school grew it was starting to become landlocked in the middle which prevented a lot of the buildings trying to connect. The decision to relocate the pool then gave us a lot more flexibility with the whole area. What started out as 5000 sqm of alteration then became 5000 sqm of new build.

With complete redesigns as with new-builds we always look at how the building, or buildings, can be expanded. Generally if it’s a smaller site and we have to look at maximising the potential built-up area right from the beginning. Our advice is to build as much as possible at this stage so, even if you don’t do the material fit out, the main structural work has already been done.

The approach in the region is different to Europe where the requirement, most often is to preserve a building because of historic value. Here there has always been a culture of demolish and start again. The lifespan of schools in the region is round 20-25 years, but that is generally not because the buildings have become unfit for purpose but because they have needed to be repurposed for whatever reason whether that is modernisation, the incorporation of technology or an increase in size.

While we cannot predict what changes might be required in the future we do try to future-proof as much as possible to ensure the spaces are as flexible as possible to allow for possible adaptions.